IMPD officer injured by drunk driver gets wheelchair-assisted SUV


This is a special day for a police officer injured in a crash with an intoxicated driver. Fellow officers presented Santos Cortez with a measure of independence. For Officer Cortez, a wheelchair is what he has been operating since the day that changed his life.

In June, 2012, an intoxicated driver slammed into the officer's cruiser. While the suspect was captured, convicted and sentenced, Cortez has been using a wheelchair.

"I probably should have died the day of my accident. But I was fortunate to stay strong enough and healthy enough to fight through it,” said Cortez. “I'm going to do everything I can to be on this department and work for them."

"It has been an interesting two years trying to coordinate with the four kids, him, the dog, the cat, all the doctor appointments, getting him to and from work - the kids to all their events, all with one car," said Cortez’ wife Fran.

Friday, the injured officer received a gift. Keys to a new Ford Flex, an SUV customized with driver-assisted hand controls.

"The way I get in a car is definitely not pretty,” joked Cortez has he climbed into the driver’s seat.

"I just wish it was a squad car again. I wish I could be back out there with my brothers and sisters chasing the bad guys down, helping clean up the city,” said Cortez. "For my department to continue to stand beside me, it means a lot to stand behind my family, myself - it means a ton."

Police Chief Rick Hite admires the officer.

“He's inspiring. He talks about the positives. He doesn't let him defray him in any way. We do have to recognize that it's a challenge," said chief Hite.

Jerrel Watkins, 27, was sentenced to three years behind bars and 180 days of community service after being convicted on two counts of operating a vehicle while intoxicated and one count of failure to stop after an accident.

Police say Officer Cortez's police car was intentionally struck by a vehicle driven by Watkins, who was attempting to flee from police. He was eventually captured and arrested. Cortez was responding to the scene of a hit and run near Washington Street and Lynhurst when Watkins ran a stop sign and drove into the path of the officer's car. Officer Cortez's car was forced into oncoming traffic, and hit a pickup truck.

Cortez wants stiffer sentences for those convicted of intoxicated driving.

"The gentleman who hit me only got three years. He did nine months total. He really didn't do any time for changing my life. You got to walk out of jail. I don't get to walk out of anywhere,” said Cortez.

But now thanks to a new set of wheels, Officer Cortez has his freedom.

"This is just fantastic. Just that he can take himself to and from work, get to his doctor appointments - not have to rely on people for rides, it's a blessing,” said Fran Cortez. “I know that's bothered him having to rely on me and fellow officers, friends and neighbors to get him all over the place. I know how happy he is to be independent again."